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Recently as the latest Venezuelan crisis boiled up, actively backed by the Trump administration, I argued that it could provide a model for future US interventions against other leftist governments in Latin America.

maduro must go

Here I will make the case that Nicolás Maduro has created a disaster that need not have occurred. He gives socialism a bad name. Successful socialism requires competent management. Maduro fails that test.

In late 2012, I gave the dying Hugo Chávez credit for being the only leader in Venezuelan history to have measurably improved the lot of the poor majority of Venezuelans (though I noted that his management of the economy was questionable). His anointed successor, Maduro, has maintained the basic approach of Chávez, even as the price of petroleum, the underpinning for every Venezuelan government, has plummeted. Chávez could do what he did because of high oil prices. Had he lived and stayed in power, he would have had the sense to make fundamental adjustments. Maduro, in contrast, has been like an automatic pilot gone rogue.

I also gave Chávez credit for leading a genuinely democratic regime — albeit a radically majoritarian democracy rather than the liberal democracy we know. Although Maduro retains significant popular support among the poor who fear that a fall of the regime could lead to rolling back the many social programs that Chavismo provided to raise living standards, it is increasingly clear that, unlike Chávez, Maduro cannot rely on honest elections to keep him in power.

Chávez’ “twenty-first century socialism” echoed the anti-imperialism of the previous century’s Left, but it didn’t adopt the Leninist single-party model of Cuba and the Soviet Union. Rather, it set up an elaborate network of social movements all orbiting around the charismatic figure of Chávez. It was not in principle hostile to private enterprise, but in practice it insisted on loyalty to the regime. Thus over time there were ever-fewer private companies that could function profitably without putting themselves under the wing of the government.

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Any leftist or socialist regime in Latin America must deal with the fundamental reality that the United States (whether under Republican or Democratic presidents) will be unsympathetic if not outright hostile.

Since the 1970s, the petroleum industry has been owned by the state, which raked off substantial resources to fund all government programs without significantly taxing the population. Prior to Chávez, governments pretty much left this goose alone to lay its golden eggs. But one of Chávez’ first acts in 1999 was to provoke a crisis in the state oil company that allowed him to take complete control. The professional managers and engineers were discharged, and inexorably the productive capacity of the company declined. He nonetheless extracted far more resources annually from the company than his predecessors, using those resources to support his ambitious social programs. The decline in production has reached catastrophic proportions under Maduro, who must thus confront both low prices and low production of the one resource the government must have to keep working.

Indeed, twenty-first-century socialism could only survive in a fundamentally unsupportive international system because of the country’s oil wealth. This was a reality that Chávez could afford to ignore, and that Maduro has not the wit to acknowledge. Any leftist or socialist regime in Latin America must deal with the fundamental reality that the United States (whether under Republican or Democratic presidents) will be unsympathetic if not outright hostile. The historical record is unequivocal (including Obama, who presided over a military coup in Honduras in 2009).

Chávez could pull Uncle Sam’s beard because of oil. Other governments of the left in the region do not have that luxury. They must avoid a antagonizing the Colossus of the North too much, and must manage their economies well enough that they don’t attract undue attention. Chile and Uruguay have done that quite well. Brazil under Lula did well (less so since). Bolivia under Evo Morales and Nicaragua under Daniel Ortega have managed much poorer economies tolerably well. But these last two countries are particularly endangered by Maduro’s catastrophic failure in Venezuela.

The closest Latin American historical analogy to Maduro would be Francisco Solano López of Paraguay, who followed the quirky but competent dictator Francia. López managed to provoke the Paraguayan War in which the combined forces of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay annihilated most of the male population of Paraguay. This crisis will not end so disastrously as that, but it is already unsupportable.

impeachment unavoidable

Nicolás Maduro must go.

John Peeler